Happiness is a priority
Professor Suthilak Smitasiri has been conducting a knowledge-based study of happiness to assist policy makers who, she says, have too often been single-minded in the pursuit of economic development, while ignoring human development
When I first met Professor Suthilak Smitasiri nearly two years ago, I was struck by the enthusiasm in her voice as she passionately moderated a forum intended to strengthen Thailand's commitment to human development.
The warm, attractive and confident professor has maintained her own commitment to human development during the unfolding of her career path in the field of nutrition, which she embarked on three decades ago.
Out of curiosity, I asked Prof Suthilak when we met again two weeks ago what had triggered the interest in human development while she went about her work in nutrition.
She replied thoughtfully that, as she was exposed to more and more experiences, her perspective changed.
Stressing that it is important not to be limited by a one-dimensional view, the professor remarked that from her personal experience Thailand's policy makers have too often been too single-minded in the pursuit of economic development, while ignoring human development. In the past, she says, important matters like social welfare and environmental preservation have been overlooked.
"Not only in Thailand, all around the world there has been a tendency to address matters with a problem-solving approach, ever since the end of the Second World War," she suggests. The problem with this management approach is that it makes problems the priority.
As a result, she says, government efforts tend to be inadequate and inefficient, because the focus is taken away from building on strengths and instilling true happiness.
"Most people are still using the 'old paradigm', when they should rather be practising positive psychology - which, for example, would put the focus on social ethics, morality and people's overall health," she remarks.
Prof Suthilak: "When we speak of happiness, it is important that we consider whether the people around us are happy."
The academic considers that even in the context of human development the old paradigm has often held sway. For example, major efforts are directed at making people more educated for purposes of economic development, but as she notes, "educated people are not always happier than their less literate elders".
For the past several months, after many years of researching this significant dimension of human development, Prof Suthilak has actively been promoting the "happiness factor".
At a seminar at the Rose Garden hosted by the professor last month, many posters were put up featuring quotes on happiness. One poster read: "Pleasure is the happiness of madmen, happiness is the pleasure of sages" - the words of the French novelist, Jules-Ame'de'e Barbey d'Aurevilly. Another one quoted the Italian Catholic priest and philosopher Doctor Thomas Aquinas: "By nature the creature endowed with reason wishes to be happy."
Prof Suthilak says that when we speak of happiness, it is important that we consider whether the people around us are happy. She regards the country of Bhutan, a kingdom that has established a "happiness index" for its people, as a valuable role model for Thailand.
Incidentally, her view is that it may be relatively easy to promote happiness in Thailand since the predominant religion, Buddhism, already teaches the simple how-tos of happiness.
"Yet to be happy does not necessarily mean that one has to be non-materialistic," she adds, noting that happiness is different for each individual.
"On the other hand, the emphasis should not be primarily on a superficial individual happiness; rather, a greater level of happiness, such as happiness in communities, should be envisioned," she considers.
Personally inspired by the subject, Prof Suthilak felt the urge to conduct a knowledge-based study of happiness. Such a study would assist in passing on the matter to policy makers.
Accordingly, over the past year, the professor and her team at the Institute of Nutrition launched a study that examined the specifics of individual and community happiness. Once Phutthamonthon district of Nakhon Pathom province, on the west side of Bangkok, where the Salaya campus of Mahidol University is located, was chosen for the study, the academic team actively began surveying the happiness levels of over a thousand individuals in the district's three villages - Salaya, Maha Sawat and Khlong Yong.
The academics then began sorting and ranking the varying levels of happiness of individuals and communities. The most basic level was observed when people had their basic material needs fulfilled. In turn, this happiness level was topped if people were seen to get their happiness from "nature or from harmonious co-existence in their societies", whereas a higher level of happiness would be noted if people's happiness was seen to derive from creative community efforts or charitable deeds.
The more sophisticated the level of happiness, the more individuals were likely to enjoy peace, awareness and enlightenment, the ingredients of life-long happiness.
According to Prof Suthilak, the findings of the study suggest that most people in Phutthamonthon still value their communities and consider that the area is a better alternative than living in the city, particularly since there is more greenery. However, the younger generations, in the Maha Sawat community in particular, had become more materialistic, which, as seen by the academic, is one of the lowest levels of happiness.
Prof Suthilak said the study's findings suggested that problems at the community level were emerging. For example, it was noted that generation gap in families in all three communities was on the rise, which in turn led to more internal conflicts within families, resulting in a lowered happiness level. At the same time community-based activities were seen to have decreased.
Urbanisation has also taken a toll on the livelihood of the people in some communities.
"The Maha Sawat area, a community once known for its skilled craftsmen, now looks like a barren neighbourhood," said Prof Suthilak. She remarked that the rapid pace of urbanisation had forced residents of this community to adopt alternative sources of income, for example, selling noodles in hotels. In her view this brought less satisfaction and happiness than craftsmanship.
Another important trend observed was the changing role of the temples in the communities. Traditionally temples have been the heart of the communities due to their significance in bringing people together for merry-making, charitable functions and even schooling.
"Now that the people in the region have a better financial standing, the preference for education, for example, has been to send children to schools in the city, losing out on the cultural heritage passed on at temples," noted the professor.
According to the statistics compiled in the study, social responsibility as well is fading, as people in the communities don't know each other. This lack of a community bond makes people less trustful. In this regard, the Salaya community in particular was seen to have suffered in its happiness level, as most residents in the community have moved in from other provinces.
Prof Suthilak said the overall results of the study suggest that happiness in the district is still at a "moderate" level. However, in order to maintain the current level of happiness it would be necessary to address problems that are on the rise in a timely manner.
The professor is optimistic that with proper efforts to do so rewarding results will be seen in about five to ten years time. Noting that this is only the first year of the study, she remarked: "Possibly, in the future, we may become a role model for developing happiness levels among communities in Thailand."
She suggested that success in raising happiness levels in the Phutthamonthon communities would prove that happiness is not limited to rural communities and can flourish in more urban settings. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that there is uncertainty over whether the efforts will be fruitful. It was noted that the complexity of problems in the Phutthamonthon region, for example, is significant, because of the rapid development of the district over the last 20 years. However, she pointed out, every community has its own strengths which can be drawn on.
Remarking that the cooperation and commitment of the community members would be needed, she said: "However, before questioning someone else's commitment, I have to ask myself first whether I will remain committed to the task", adding that commitment is not always easy "because being committed means we want to see results, which means we make demands from others, and this sometimes is a source of trouble".
Nevertheless, she concluded, although success may be uncertain, the best we can do is to do our best each day.
Professor Suthilak Smitasiri is Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Head of the Division of Communication and Behavioural Science at the Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University.
She holds a doctorate degree in Community Nutrition from Queensland University, Australia, a master's degree in Applied Communication Research from Stanford University, USA, and a master's degree in Development Communication from Chulalongkorn University. She has received the Queen Sirikit CERES award for her outstanding contribution to nutritional well-being in Thailand.
Prof Suthilak was born on July 15, 1955 in Bangkok.